When a storm arises while the disciples are on the sea of Galilee, Jesus decides to meet them on the water. Yet, as Jesus travels toward those at sea, the Gospel writer adds that “he meant to pass by them” (Mark 6:48). It is only when the disciples see him and react in fright that their teacher turns to speak with them. But if Jesus walks on water to save his struggling students, then why does he intend to pass beyond the boat? The Gospel includes this curious information to connect Jesus’ actions to what God had done in the past.
Mark states that as Jesus “came to [his disciples], walking on the sea, he meant to pass by (παρελθεῖν; parelthein)” (6:48). This detail may sound odd, but it is crucial for understanding Jesus as the one through whom God works on earth. When Moses asks God to see the divine “glory” (כבוד; kavod), the Lord tells him that no human being “can see my face” (Exodus 33:20). As a compromise, God puts Moses in the cleft of a rock and tells him to look once the Glory has gone by. In the Greek translation of this passage, God tells Moses, “When my glory passes by (παρέλθῃ; parélthe), I will place you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by (παρέλθω; paréltho). And I will remove my hand and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen” (33:22-23 LXX). Moses gets to see God’s “back” (אחור; achor), but the Lord protects Moses by blocking his view of the divine visage.
It is this narrative that Mark alludes to when Jesus walks on the stormy sea. For the reader tuned into Exodus, the notion that Jesus would have “passed by” his disciples indicates that the Messiah is doing a “God act” of the kind that Moses saw at Sinai. Jesus’ words to his students underscore his divine identity: “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid” (Mk 6:50). The common English translation of “it is I” obscures what the Greek Gospel really says, which is “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι; ego eimi)—the same phrase with which God responds to Moses at the burning bush according to the Septuagint: “And God said to Moses, ‘I am’ (ἐγώ εἰμι; ego eimi)” (Exodus 3:14 LXX). If walking on water weren’t enough, the Gospel includes subtle linguistic cues to show that Jesus reenacts the words and deeds of God.